Friday, 13 August 2010

Under the Dome; read The Stand instead

I've read quite a lot of Stephen King over the years. I don't really like horror fiction, and I ignored King all the way through his early success; the first Stephen King book I read was his non-fiction collection, Danse Macabre, which is one of the very few books I've ever read about how a writer actually does his writing. It's a bit of a lashup, but there's a lot of good stuff in it, and there's a winning humility. King wasn't under any illusions about himself, and I liked the voice of the man enough to dip into his less grisly work. So I read The Eye of the Dragon - that was in 1988, as I walked around the bits of Ireland I didn't think I'd seen enough of, and I have happy memories of sitting at the side of the road in the ring of Kerry on a warm June day eating a simple picnic and reading a not particularly good book. Good times, and for once I'm not being sarcastic. I also read Gene Wolfe's not quite successful books about Ancient Greece on that trip, and while I've never gone back to them, or indeed to Gene Wolfe, they're tinged with the affection that rightly belongs to the landscape and the simple pleasures of taking a holiday at my own speed and for my own reasons, something I haven't often done since.

Since then I've read the Stand, both versions, and all of the Dark Tower sequence, and a lot of the science fiction-y stuff which he did after he wrote The Stand. The pure horror never appealed to me, although I've been repeatedly told that I'm opting out of the best stuff. Well, so it goes.

Under the Dome was the first real doorstopper King's chunked out in the better part of a decade, and it's been getting a certain amount of attention from the commentariat because it doesn't have much supernatural in it and it seems to be a thinly veiled metaphor for the stuff which is bugging King about America, or modernity, or some damn thing. There's a sense in which the commentariat deigns to pay attention to King from time to time and grudgingly endorse him for writing books people read, in much the way that the artistic directors of the Bolshoi might take in the dancing bear show and concede that if nothing else, people pay to watch the bear boogie.

King is, indeed, a readable writer. He's not a great stylist, and he does villains and patsies better than he does ordinary people or heroes, but he can roll along a narrative at impressive speed. His great stylistic weakness, I've always thought, is that he never stops to think of the right word; if he can't think of the right word, he'll bang out a whole paragraph to take its place. This can be a great strength when he's trying to map out the interior language of schmucks, but it does mean that you never really have much of an urge to stop and consider what you've just read. Stephen King is not a quotable writer.

Style aside, he's usually a strong enough plotter, although in recent years he's shown a tendency to choke in the last act. The set-ups are usually pretty solid, but the pay-offs can fizzle - Cell, a couple of years ago, had a very fizzle-y ending. And plotting isn't always enough, even when it's good - with the exception of the Stand, and the need to re-read parts of the Dark Tower sequence because I'd just flat out forgotten what the hell had happened while I waited for King's block to wear off, I've never re-read any of his books. Or kept them for that matter.

Well, enough with the intro. What about the book which everyone is prepared to pretend to take seriously?

It's not actually as good as some of his earlier stuff. The Stand, particularly the director's cut, is a better book, and a more satisfying read. Hence the heading on this post. As always, the set up's impressive, and it's the follow through which starts to disappoint. What if you put a small American town under glass, cut off from the world? Well, in King's vision it all goes to hell within a week. As I type this, I suddenly realise that Under the Dome has a theme in common with Lord of the Flies; if you isolate a group of people from accountability or the prospect of fresh resources, what will happen? Golding used a plane load of school kids on a desert island, and King uses 2,000 small town Americans stuck suddenly behind a forcefield. To be brutal about it, there is no prospect at all that Under the Dome is ever going to become a set text in secondary schools.

Mostly it's because King stacks the deck too much. His principal villain is already a monster, and this is perfectly logical, but he's much more of a monster than he needs to be. The book is, I think, intended as a meditation on how we're all stuck in this world together and we must resist demagoguery and short sighted self interest. That message would come across a lot more strongly if the leaders of Chester's Mill weren't delivered to us pre-corrupted. Big Jim Rennie would be a much more compelling and interesting villain if he was simply a power hungry miniature Huey Long with his fingers in the till; instead he's insane enough to have set up the largest meth production lab in the US under the cover of a fundamentalist church. Meeting Rennie at this stage of his development is like being introduced to Hitler in 1944; it's no longer a surprise that it's all going to go horribly wrong, and the monster's so divorced from reality that it becomes impossible to think "There, but for the grace of God go I...."

However, as always, it's the villains and the screw-ups which jump off the page; the heroes are somehow flat, no matter how much backstory they're given. It's hard to write believable nice people, but what makes it really hard is when you put them up against richly textured monsters; then the flatness of the heroes - and if we're honest, of most real people - seems particularly affectless. There were moments, and too many of them, when I started to lose track of which good guy was talking, because I'd forgotten to make a mental note of which job was supposed to be getting done - all the heroes have a specific job to do, lord help them.

The thing which nagged away at me the whole way through the book was that everything was happening too fast. Within a week, everything has fallen apart for Chester's Mill and apocalyptic destruction has rained down on the population. I kept feeling that the book's argument would have been far more compelling if it had been spread over weeks or months rather than days. I'm not sure why King felt the need to rush it all; in other books he's been perfectly capable of playing a long game. I suspect that when he was trying to figure out the physics of the confinement he decided that he'd run out of air unless he ran the plot faster, but since he decided for himself how the dome was going to work and what the air budget would be, that's not really much of an explanation.

Anyhow, it all falls apart with over-dramatic speed, and then everything explodes, which starts a fire, which kills everyone, more or less, and fills the dome with choking smoke because the fire used up all the oxygen. So the very small number of survivors from the fire can't breathe, and this is the tension point of the final act - will anyone get out alive from the dome before they suffocate from lack of oxygen? I was distracted from caring about this as much as I should because I was too busy being bugged at the fact that car engines and propane powered generators were still working despite the lack of oxygen. Which got me to wondering why there was such a lot of propane (other than the fact that King needed something to blow up for the last act and diesel won't explode).

So, short version - it's not a very satisfying book. Since it's by a perfectly competent writer and it's insanely long, there are all sorts of good bits along the way; in particular, the set up as primary characters are mapped in and put into place, is strong and solid. But ultimately it falls apart at the end, and the nagging feeling that it's all going horribly wrong is pretty much down to King's decisions about pacing and the need for a cataclysmic climax. There are plenty of good books about ordinary people going under to fascism, and Under the Dome is not going to be remembered in the same breath. More troublingly, given King's manifest intent, I think the book is going to wind up reassuring people that there's no need to worry too much about things going wrong just so long as you take the elementary precaution of not letting your town be run by a lunatic fundamentalist Christian meth dealer.

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